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Rivonia trial

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The Rivonia Trial

1 June 2009

The Rivonia Trial was a trial that took place in South Africa between 1963 and 1964, in which ten leaders of the African National Congress were tried for 221 acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system.

It was named after Rivonia, the suburb of Johannesburg where 19 ANC leaders were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm, privately owned by Arthur Goldreich, on 11 July 1963. It had been used as a hideout for the African National Congress. Among others, Nelson Mandela had moved onto the farm in October 1961 and evaded security police while masquerading as a gardener and cook called David Motsamayi (meaning “the walker”).

Arrested were:

  • Walter Sisulu
  • Govan Mbeki
  • Raymond Mhlaba
  • Andrew Mlangeni
  • Elias Motsoaledi, trade union and ANC member
  • Ahmed Kathrada
  • Billy Nair
  • Denis Goldberg, a Cape Town engineer and leader of the Congress of Democrats.
  • Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, architect and member of the Communist party
  • Bob Hepple
  • Arthur Goldreich
  • Harold Wolpe, prominent attorney and activist
  • James “Jimmy” Kantor, brother-in-law of Harold Wolpe
  • and others.

Goldberg, Bernstein, Hepple, Wolpe and Goldreich were white Jews, Kathrada and Nair were Indian, and Sisulu, Mbeki, Motsoaledi and Mhlaba were Xhosa (black), although Sisulu`s father was in fact a European magistrate named Victor Dickenson.

The trial was essentially a mechanism through which the apartheid government could hurt or mute the ANC. Its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, who was already in Johannesburg`s Fort prison serving a five-year sentence for inciting workers to strike and leaving the country illegally, were prosecuted, found guilty, and imprisoned. The apartheid regime`s attack on the ANC`s leadership and organizers continued with a trial known as Little Rivonia, in which other ANC members were prosecuted in accordance with international laws on terrorism. Amongst the defendants in this trial was the chief of MK, Wilton Mkwayi who was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Mandela and the other ANC leaders on Robben Island.

The government took advantage of 90 days without trial, and the defendants were held incommunicado. Meanwhile, Goldreich and Wolpe bribed a guard and escaped from jail on 11 August. Their escape infuriated the prosecutors and police who considered Goldreich to be “the arch-conspirator.”

Lawyers were unable to see the accused until two days before indictment on 9 October. Leading the defence team was Bram Fischer, the distinguished Afrikaner lawyer, assisted by Harry Schwarz, Joel Joffe, Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos and Harold Hanson. At the end of October, Hepple was able to leave the dock because under pressure he agreed to testify for the prosecution but never did; he managed to escape and flee the country.

The presiding judge was Dr. Quartus de Wet, judge-president of the Transvaal.
The chief prosecutor was Dr. Percy Yutar, deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal.

The trial began on 26 November 1963. After dismissal of the first indictment as inadequate, the trial finally got under way on 3 December with an expanded indictment. Each of the ten accused pleaded not guilty. The trial ended on 12 June 1964.